Brock Clarke’s second novel, “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England,” laid waste, humorously, to the erstwhile dwellings of Dickinson and Melville. Clarke himself lives with his family in Portland, Maine. This week, he releases his sixth book, “The Happiest People in the World,” a novel about Denmark, political cartoons, and covert CIA operatives.
CAN RUN BUT CAN’T HIDE: My writing setup is on the first floor of my house. I can shut off the rest of my family, but both of the doors are windows. I’ll be working with the doors closed, and I see some movement in my peripheral vision, and it’s [my five-year-old son] taunting me, jumping up and down.
SOUNDS OF SILENCE: I’m not a person who writes with music on. I need quiet, but there’s always noise involved — usually the noise of self-hatred. I’m often screaming at myself to not be such a bad writer.
GROUP THERAPY: Teaching interferes with my writing, but lots of things interfere with my writing because I let them. With teaching, at least you’re talking about something that’s related to the thing you should be doing. Even if I’m not writing, the conversations I’m having [in class] might help once I get back to writing. If a student is struggling with something, or if there’s an example of something in a story we’re talking about that has some bearing on some trouble I’m having, I’ll talk about it in class. Once you articulate this stuff, you feel better, and by helping someone out, you might get out of your own trouble.
(MURIEL) SPARK OF IMAGINATION: Reading books that I love helps me write. For “The Happiest People in the World,” the writer that I would turn to was Muriel Spark: “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” “Aiding and Abetting,” and “Territorial Rights.” They’re all very short, very funny omniscient novels in which there’s a certain amount of meanness, but it’s always purposeful. They’re highly cerebral novels, but she wears her braininess very lightly. “Territorial Rights” and “Aiding and Abetting” are spy novels, this interesting combination of high literary fiction and genre fiction. I think that’s the kind of book I just wrote.
MY UNHAPPY PLACE: My [new] book is set in upstate New York and in Denmark, where nothing is ever set. My wife had work [in Denmark] a long time ago. I went, and I absolutely loved it. I loved it in the way you love places you’ve never considered before you’re in them. I was very happy there. The people were very happy there. They’re known as the happiest people in the world. I was shocked that they made me happy, because I usually really dislike happy people and an overall sense of well-being. [The 2005 controversy over] the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad made me realize that this was an unhappy place, and I was a dope for thinking otherwise. I thought I would construct a novel around this disillusionment. I often start my books with cheap irony. If the books are any good, they become something else along the way.
ORDINARY PEOPLE: My new novel is set in Portland, and it’s about a family with very ordinary troubles — kids who are train wrecks, spouses with marital problems, and the lengths they go to get themselves into a life that’s less predictable. Even though I’ve written a hundred pages, I don’t really know what it’s about. I write a bunch of stuff, and when I run into problems, I take a step back to see what sort of theme I’m working with. It usually takes a year or two to figure that out.
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached eugenia.williamson @gmail.com